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With an incredibly wet winter which has seen many horses stabled, owners will be rejoicing with the recent sunshine and turning out for the spring months over the next few weeks. This combined with the current COVID-19 situation and the impact that it is having on our lives, also means that some horses may be left out in the field for longer periods, which whilst may seem better for the horse, could pose a greater risk of developing laminitis.

Anyone who has dealt with horses has likely heard about laminitis. It is unfortunately a condition that is frequently encountered, extremely painful and has significant welfare implications; thankfully, however, many cases can return to soundness with appropriate care and ongoing management.

Lush grass has long been held responsible for causing laminitis, and in many cases it plays a major role, however, there are many other factors at play that can induce a bout of laminitis. It is commonly accepted that there are 3 general situations that can result in laminitis:

  • Inflammatory – diseases such as some types of colic, a retained placenta or diarrhoea, causing widespread inflammation can predispose a horse to laminitis.
  • Endocrinopathic – diseases that have a hormonal association, such as pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction ‘PPID’ (equine Cushing’s disease) or equine metabolic syndrome can result in the more commonly encountered laminitis that we associate with excessive consumption of lush pasture.
  • Mechanical – also known as supporting limb laminitis, this type of laminitis arises when a horse is bearing more weight through one limb than usual. For example if a horse has a fracture, they will bear more weight on the opposite limb, and this limb is the one that we will see laminitis in.

Signs of laminitis:

  • Lameness
  •  often affecting at least two limbs
  • exacerbated by walking on hard ground or turning
  • A rocked back stance
  • Weight shifting
  • Raised digital pulses
  • Sometimes the pain from laminitis can be so severe, the horse may behave like it has colic

The clinical signs are often sufficient to diagnose laminitis without further tests, however, X-rays are vital in cases where it is suspected the pedal bone has rotated or sunk. X-rays are also useful for assessing foot balance and allowing your farrier and your vet to work together to help your pony/horse regain soundness. In some cases where an underlying endocrine disease is suspected, blood tests may be recommended.

Laminitis is an emergency in the same way that colic is, the sooner treatment is initiated the better the outcome. There are several different drug options that your vet will consider; after assessing your horse they will be able to decide the most appropriate treatment plan. Sole support is also vital; this can be achieved in several ways, including a deep bed, all the way to the door, commercial frog supports, or frog and sole supports such as putty or Styrofoam pads. Your vet will be able to advise you on any dietary changes that need to be initiated, and discuss ongoing management of endocrine disease where present.

Prevention is always better than cure. In horses with an endocrinopathic predisposition to laminitis it is important to treat their underlying endocrine disease, restrict their non-structural carbohydrate intake at pasture and avoid allowing the horse to be overweight. For laminitis associated with inflammation from concurrent disease, it may be beneficial to ice the feet of at risk horses, prior to laminitis occurring. For horses at risk of developing supporting limb laminitis it may be prudent to support the supporting limb with frog/sole supports.

If you have any concerns regarding laminitis, or think your horse or pony could be at risk for developing laminitis, please call the practice to arrange a visit from one of our vets.

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